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Saturday, Jul 7, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: The genre’s definitive dominatrix lights up the screen in a trio of the seediest, sleaziest exploitation epics ever created.


Olga’s House of Shame/ White Slaves of Chinatown/ Olga’s Dance Hall Girls


In an abandoned coalmine somewhere between the urban sprawl of New York City and the black lung of Butcher Holler, is Olga’s House of Shame. Really nothing more than the Teamster’s former lunch shack converted into a den of inequity and sin, it houses the white babes in bondage of the mob’s favorite dominatrix, Olga. This high cheekboned badass relishes and relies on the torture and torment of women, all in preparation for their eventual use and abuse by paying members of paternalistic society. With the help of her haberdasher turned henchman brother Nick, she finds parolees, the disenchanted, and the heavily impressionable, and before you can say Somerset Maugham, she’s got them manacled, bound with leather, strapped into homemade electric chairs, and prancing like my little pity pony around her Love Canal style estate. True, there is always an ungrateful gal or two wanting to escape the life of degradation for a slight sip of the milk of human kindness. But Olga has some inventive means of quenching the thirst for personal dignity.


Meanwhile, Peking duck and the Eastern/Oriental mindset are given a big kick in the diversity as our Olga sets up shot in the Chop Suey district and, with the help of opium and a lack of political correctness, begins her career as a provider of dope fiend hookers. That’s right, whenever you or your buddies are wondering just where to find the finest and freshest flesh feasts, you need look no further than the gone to seed supermodel Madame O and her White Slaves of Chinatown. Offering a wide assortment of society’s dregs for all manner of mistreatment, you can really get your Marquis De Sade started at this BYOBI (bring your own branding iron) establishment. Everything is offered here, from blowtorches to combs. But it’s not all electrodes and evisceration. Even Olga herself occasionally finds time for a little employer/employee interaction. Picking out one of her more unconscious chanteuses, she moves in and performs the art of seduction the only way she’s ever known how: by beating someone until they pass out.


Finally, what’s an upper class Manhattan housewife to do when she’s grown bored of the cosmopolitan highlife? Well, she can read the want ads, meet up with the slimy sleazeball Nick, and apply for a lifetime contractual position as one of Olga’s Dance Hall Girls. Helping to redefine the term “hostess” so that it requires more horizontal than vertical attention, our decidedly different looking headmistress spends a great deal of down time motivating her indentured bop queens into giving up their goodies for the sake of a sick thrill. And for the most part it works, since even a bored Suzie Housewife is more than happy to throw down the gauntlet of acceptable social behavior and expose her Bill Blass to the paying clientele. But they best be wary of making Miss O angry. She will get Greenwich Village on their hinder and beat them to a bloody pulp. Either that, or endlessly discuss the ramifications of violating contractually agreed upon terms over and over again with the ladies until their brains melt.


Get ready to be incredibly disappointed by this set of Olga films. Those who have long dreamed of seeing these urban grit girl fests in the privacy of their home, hoping they were warped and weird counterpoints to the non-metropolitan masochism of the later Ilsa series, may want a ribald recount. Bereft of even the slightest titillation factor (unless you are deep into S&M—more on this later) and poorly shot, filmed, and acted, the Olga movies offered on this Something Weird triple feature could best be described as monotonous in the most completely literal interpretation of that word. These are movies made for a sole audience, with only one main goal in mind and created from a singular premise. In some ways, the SCTV spoofing of similarly seedy concepts, with such comically precise titles as “Dr. Tongue’s 3-D House of Slave Chicks,” accurately captures the ludicrous laziness of these movies.


Not films, actually, since they tell no cohesive story and are filled with images and archetypes instead of characters. In fact, these cinematic explorations of sleaze function as lurid litmus test, a good gauge to your sexual proclivity. If you find any of the elaborate and carefully staged bondage material the least bit enticing, if your cabbage is tossed when you witness Olga beating a wounded wanton wench back to the stone age, or if you salivate at the sight of long, static tableaus featuring women in various stages of servitude, then you may be the perfect candidate for this trilogy of trauma. But most other exploitation audience members will, once the novelty has worn off, wonder just what the whipping post the big deal is here.



The Olga films are blueprint formations all the way. Each is exactly the same in tone and timbre. We are introduced to Olga and her occupation: white slaver to the world, provider of female pulchritude, and occasional dealer in illegal drugs. She is always associated with a “mob” or “syndicate” who bankrolls her brainwashing and bondage. She always has a less than masculine “assistant” who aids her in the finding of new flesh. And the storylines always center on locating new gals, discovering the traitors, and meting out punishment for crimes, be they actual or thought. There is a minimum of dialogue (Dance Hall Girls has more spoken words than the other two films combined times 20) and a voice-over narrator gives us the Joe Friday style set of facts for everything that is happening on the screen (our storyteller always seems to know even more than what is being shown, or could be inferred from being shown).


We then cut to scenes of women oppressed, filmed matter of factly to provide the raincoat crowd the requisite amount of raunch per second of screening. There is always some fake violence involving electricity, knives, or bizarre implements of defilement. Everything is forced and invariable, offering very little drama or filth. In reality, these films are nothing more than B&D books come to ersatz “life.” Olga’s House of Shame is probably the most entertaining (if one can find these flat visions of vice enjoyable), since it provides the most amusing voice-over story structure, plus the pear shaped asexuality of Olga’s Barry Humphries in training brother Nick. His chase of Elaine through the woods, wobbly male “pouch” in full undulation, is worth the price of admission alone.


But as for the rest of these night terror tortures, Chinatown is too prosaic to make much sense. We do learn a lot about why Asians have had such a hard time, socially, within the United States since the crass, racist comments made about life and crime in the Oriental areas of urban society are downright slanderous. For a film to try and excuse what is basically an exercise in perverted sexuality as some sort of unwanted “yellow plague” seems horribly unfair. Dance Hall Girls is decidedly different, as it offers pages and pages of dialogue. That’s right, Olga and her minions talk…and talk and talk and talk. Seems there’s not a meaningless topic that these miscast actors can’t mangle and moon about for untold moments of monotony. If you ever wondered why House of Shame and Chinatown have ix-nayed on the alking-tay the verbal Valium of Dance Hall will lull you into a sense of silence.


Even worse, all of the Olgas are slim on the skin side. While the nudity level seems to increase as the titles moves along, there is very little revelry in the reveal. It seems that nakedness is treated as an offhanded indirect result of having to persecute and mistreat women. Even when our Olgas decide to get their pre-soft core freak on and rub their prisoners for a little same sex leisure, the newsreel manner of the sequencing makes for limp biscuits all around. It’s easy to understand why these films were such a scandal in the early ‘60s; people used to seeing the nudie cutie booties of various sun worshipers scurry across the screen must have purged their petticoats upon seeing these scenes of pseudo sick sordidness and sadism. But in the light of today’s anything-for-a-jolly social mentality, it all plays out like a very special episode of Fear Factor.


Any fan of exploitation worth their heft in hedonism will definitely want to check out this mad mistress and her love of pain. But the casual fan that has only heard about the outrageous nature of these movies will be disarmed at how devoid of violence they truly are. Olga may be “possessed of a mind so warped that she made sadism a full-time business,” but the movies capturing her mental malady are quite sobering.


 


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Friday, Jul 6, 2007


The big buzz building around the Internet the last two days has centered on a striking new trailer. It features people partying, having fun, all viewed through the various handheld recording devices that have swept across the post-millennial landscape (PDAs, cellphones, camcorders). Suddenly, an Earth-shaking noise is heard. The fun stops. Another massive thud. And then a horrific, otherworldly wail. People start to panic. Before long, we are tossed into a chaotic, first person POV destruction of New York City, including mandatory symbolic obliteration (poor Statue of Liberty) and some very familiar movie monster noises (Toho, anyone?). The unusual clip – no narration, no major marketing tag lines – suddenly cuts to black. On the screen, the following title cards appear: “From J.J. Abrams” and “1/18/08”.


Fans of the Alias/Lost creator, fortunate enough to see (and in some cases, unlawfully capture) the teaser as part of the Transformers theatrical preview package, immediately rushed home and searched the Internet Movie Database for some clue as to what this proposed film, code named “Cloverfield”, was really all about. Many speculated that it would be the long dormant Godzilla sequel, which made sense since Abrams was the creative force behind the Mission Impossible franchise reboot and is currently developing a Star Trek reimagining as well. So why not give the big green radioactive lizard another shot, right? Well, that rumor was quickly nixed when studious fans recognized that Paramount (the company behind the new film) does not own the rights to the character.


Others have guessed that, based on the movie it was attached to, it may be another ‘80s cartoon title (the prime suspect: a proposed live action version of Voltron). Of course, that was also immediately negated when a World Wide Web search found readily available information on said project – and Abrams name was nowhere to be seen. From another alien invasion ala Independence Day to something called The Parasite that the producer/director has been working on, the fascinating footage – and its eventual bootlegging on the ‘Net – has caused quite a stir. It’s the kind of ‘viral’ world of mouth that marketers are mad about, especially in this interconnected age when a well placed site, a MySpace page, and constant conversation on the numerous movie and fan messageboards can keep an unreleased product viable for months.


Naturally, Paramount has been playing pirate killer, removing the various incarnations of the trailer from all known potential playback portals (YouTube, etc.), though if you look hard enough, you may still be able to find the horrible, hack quality video. Their aggressiveness has lead some to argue that the studio is really behind all the ‘illegal’ activity and is using the whole controversy as a means of generating press (and it’s worked – after all, we’re talking about it here). Through all the denials and determined PR statements, one thing’s for certain – Cloverfield is no longer a non-entity. Among the many 2008 titles generating incredibly early interest (Indiana Jones 4, Speed Racer, The Happening), this still unknown effort has moved right up to the top.


Of course, this isn’t the first time that mysterious images meshed with online elements have generated major movie curiosity. As far back as 1989, when Tim Burton announced that Michael Keaton would play the lead role in his version of Batman, the technically savvy have spent endless amounts of time in stern speculation over movies in production and decisions (both artistic and practical) by filmmakers helming their works in progress. It’s the foundation for immensely popular websites like Ain’t It Cool News and Coming Attractions. Indeed, the fanboy and the obsessive have long known the inherent value of futile flame wars over casting, concept, and characterization. While it may not change the actual movie being made, it sure helps keep the profile high and mighty. Perhaps the best example of such a strategy remains the infamous Blair Witch Project. For almost the entire year prior to its Summer 1999 release, this minor mock documentary became the most celebrated unseen horror film of the decade. 


It all began with some secretly distributed videotapes. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wanted a little publicity for their $22,000 experiment, and knew that the growing influence of the Internet could help. As a highly believable webpage was being built centering around the movie’s mythos, the guys sent out copies to various sites. One influential individual who received a copy was AICN honcho Harry Knowles. For all his obvious self promotion, this life long film dork adored the film. In fact, it was he who started much of the “is it real, or is it fake” conjecture. His reaction was so visceral, so perfectly aligned with the response Myrick and Sanchez were looking for, that they built their entire campaign around it. It was a strategy they took to Sundance and Cannes.


Thanks to the website, and similar praise from other sources, The Blair Witch Project soon became the talk of the techs. Most of the conversation centered on the “missing” kids who supposedly starred in the film (the actors were asked to keep a very low profile until the movie was released) and how, though many claimed there was no such thing, the town of Burkittsville was indeed home to a vengeful demonic spirit. There was even an uproar over accusations of copycatting and outright plagiarism. Filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler were livid when they learned of the Blair Witch plot and format. It seemed sneakily similar to their effort The Last Broadcast, centering on a group of public access show producers who enter the New Jersey Pine Barrens – and never return.


Naturally, all the buildup, all the exposure both good and bad, all the preview screenings (and eventual leaked reviews) and SciFi Channel specials (one supposedly offering the true story of the child killer at the center of Witch’s narrative) lead to unbelievably high audience recognition, and when it finally found its way into theaters at the end of July 1999, it was a monster hit. Everyone, from the most avid horror fan to the mere curious onlooker, just had to see what this mysterious movie was all about. Hailed as some manner of masterwork, The Blair Witch Project has since become a unique, if nominal, genre fluke. It’s a hard film to watch in light of all that we now know about the production, and it no longer carries the ethereal impact it once had.


Yet studios saw how a carefully created package involving both online and standard tactics of marketing and awareness could generated immense interest (and larger than usual box office dollars). Warner Brothers jumped on board early, using the incredibly evocative tagline “What is the Matrix?” and a similarly named Internet address to begin the build-up for it’s proposed virtual reality thriller. The company followed suit by lobbing various rumors about the casting and storyline for their proposed late ‘90s Superman update (it backfired, more or less killing the project until Bryan Singer came along and jumpstarted it). Of course, the most recent example remains Snakes on a Plane. From the decision to dump the far more mundane Pacific Air 121 title, to the last minute reshoots that upped the film’s previously pegged PG-13 language and violence, New Line went all out catering to the WWW crowd. Some still believe it eventually cost the company (the film was only a moderate hit).


So whatever Cloverfield ends up being (our money is on a gimmicky, one note effort that will be low on spectacle and high on Witch like slacker confrontations), here’s hoping Abrams and Paramount play it smart. It is one thing to involve the rich vein of human curiosity that floods through the various dial-up, DSL, and cable connections across this country. When properly tapped into, said pipeline can produce dynamic dividends. But just like the flawed concepts of focus groups, and advanced screenings geared toward constantly remaking a movie to fit an elusive utilitarian entertainment ideal (the greatest good for the greatest number), you can pay too much attention to the untrained audience and end up killing whatever made your movie distinctive in the first place. The teaser certainly succeeded in its named capacity. It has us interested. It will be five more months before we know if there’s more to this story than hope – and hype.


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Thursday, Jul 5, 2007


It’s overwhelmingly oppressive, and there’s no relief in sight. No, we’re not talking about the blistering July heat. We’re discussing the absolute dearth of entertainment options available for the interested audience member. Tinsel Town has a few more juicy bon mots waiting in the wings – including a beloved wizard whose fifth film opens one week from today (13 July) – and the basic broadcast networks are regurgitating old reality show faves (Big Brother) to spark excitement. But unless you missed most of last year’s popcorn movie season, the selections provided by the premium pay channels will feel like a severe case of redux déjà vu. Indeed, Saturday night will feel like August 2006 all over again what with the choices offered. Still, there’s some value here, especially the somewhat forced funny business of the SE&L selection. Indeed, you could do a lot worse for your 7 July jollies:


Premiere Pick
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby


There was a time there when supposed funnyman Will Ferrell was in danger of dropping far down the list of Hollywood humorists. After a very shaky start in cinema (A Night at the Roxbury, anyone?), the trifecta of Old School/Elf/Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy substantially shifted his big screen fortunes. But then bad script choices (Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched) threatened to unseat him once again. Turning to Burgundy’s creative team of Adam McKay (writer/director) and Judd Apatow (producer), he twisted the current fixations of NASCAR nation into a sly take on racing and the sport’s beer belly bravado. The result was a solid summer 2006 hit, a box office bonanza additionally aided by the appearance - and supporting performance - of soon to be Borat phenom Sacha Baron Cohen. Sure, some of the jokes are dumb and/or dopey, but the Method madness to the creation of this fictional hero is so detailed that you sometimes forget you are watching fiction – or Will Ferrell. (07 July, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Devil Wears Prada


Every season, a movie sneaks under the pre-hype radar and illustrates the truth about what audiences really want. In this case, they apparently required a witty, acerbic take on haughty New York couture featuring a fresh faced newcomer and a grand dame diva of the acting trade. And that’s actually what this undeniably charming movie delivered, much to their delight. (07 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

Miami Vice


You’ve got to give Michael Mann points for trying. Who else would take the important iconic elements of their own mid ‘80s TV series – pastel colors, fashion plate cool - and strip them away for a big screen revamp? Granted, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx may be enough human eye candy for the neo-nostalgic audiences, but somehow, this is more South Florida Heat than an update of Crockett and Tubbs. (07 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

 


An American Haunting


It was advertised as the only true case of a ghost ever killing a man, and for a while, the trade paper ruse worked. Then viewers discovered that the storyline was set in the early 1800’s, and was based on that most unreliable of evidence – the anecdotal kind. And even then, the filmmakers still screwed it up. A powerhouse cast is wasted on a paltry PG-13 spook show. (07 July, ShowTOO, 9:50PM EST)

Indie Pick
Incident at Loch Ness


With his latest fiction film – Rescue Dawn – about to hit theaters, this oddball mock doc from 2004 gives fans and the unfamiliar a chance to see another, more satiric side of famed German auteur Werner Herzog. As a favor to neighbor Zak Penn (A-list Hollywood scribe and self promoter), the director lent his considerable cult of personality to a semi-success spoof about ego, excuses and exploration. Together, Penn and Herzog play themselves, and head out on an expedition to discover the secrets inside Scotland’s most famous lake. In between are staged conversations and conflict, lots of self deprecating humor, and an ending that doesn’t really satisfy. In fact, this is a frequently one note vanity project that trades on Herzog’s calculated cool to appear more substantive and sharp than it really is. Still, with his seductive German accent and well-earned gravitas, it’s always fun to see this Teutonic titan in action – even if the results are rather routine. (10 July, IFC, 2:25PM EST)

Additional Choices
Habit


Vampires don’t get a lot of cinematic respect. Whatever made solid stars of these bloodsucking members of the undead community has long since dissolved into pools of pointlessness and stereotypical slop. So it’s a relief to champion something different within the neckbiter genre, and this amiable indie effort from 1996 is just that. It’s disturbing, sexy, and most importantly, quite original. (08 July, IFC, 10:35PM EST)

Commune


When one thinks of the ‘60s, certain concepts instantly come to mind – The Beatles, free love, flower power, and the agricultural egalitarianism of the shared living community. In this fascinating documentary, writer/director Jonathan Berman explores the real life Black Bear Ranch, and how it was centered more on philosophy than fornication. Indeed, it remains a perfect depiction of the real counterculture.  (09 July, Sundance Channel, 9PM EST)

Fearless Freaks – The Flaming Lips


They’ve been around since 1983, and yet like their brothers in sonic arms, Guided by Voices, The Flaming Lips continuously fall outside the mainstream music scene. Hoping to increase their popular profile, filmmaker Bradley Beesley went about creating a documentary focusing on founder Wayne Coyne, and the dichotomy between his rock and roll and real life personas. It makes for fascinating viewing. (11 July, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Outsider Option
Barton Fink


The Coen Brothers stunned audiences at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival with this brilliant deconstruction of Hollywood hack commercialism and writer’s block. They won the Golden Palm (the highest honor) while Joel earned the best director nod. Even star John Turturro picked up praise – and an award – for his brilliant turn as the title character. Playing a self-important New York playwright whisked off to Tinsel Town to act as patsy to the standard studio merchandising machine (his charge – write wrestling pictures), Fink finds himself locked up in a decrepit hotel, visited frequently by his loud, lumbering next door neighbor (an equally genius turn by co-star John Goodman). When the inability to create becomes too overbearing, he tries to tap fellow scribe W. P. Mayhew for help. He soon learns that a life in service of schlock can kill you – literally. Among their many masterworks, this is one of the siblings most symbolic – and satisfying. (11 July, Indieplex, 7PM EST)

Additional Choices
Curse of the Demon


Symbolism is everything in horror. Give the audience good ghouls and you’ll win them over (almost) every time. Night of the Demon (the original title before a Tinsel Town reedit) offers a floating devil head that is still creepy fifty years later. The rest of the movie is fairly ordinary, but that disembodied fiend will haunt your nightmares for years to come. (6 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter’s Cover


How desperate is the slasher film, and those who make them, to rely on a zombie pirate to provide their slice and dice delights? And how derivative is an undead buccaneer, considering the entire plot of the initial Curse of the Black Pearl installment of Disney’s blockbuster franchise? Who knows, and with something this potentially cheesy, who cares? Here’s hoping it’s so bad, it’s good, instead of just plain awful. (08 July, Sci Fi Channel, 3AM EST)

American Gothic


This long forgotten cult creepfest deserves to be rediscovered. It has Oscar winner Rod Steiger and former Munster Yvonne DeCarlo chewing up the scenery as a sinister couple, and an unsettling premise about a backwards/woods family who don’t take kindly to strangers. So naturally, a group of misguided travelers land on their doorstep. Eep! (11 July, Drive-In Classics Canada, 7:15PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jul 4, 2007

Basically, movie soundtracks are divided into three generic types. The first is the most recognizable and familiar - the basic score release, a composer-created set of cues that illustrate the basic sonic signatures in the film. Sometimes, an original number of two can be added to amplify the mercantile possibilities, but for the most part, it’s all instrumentals and mood. The second kind of collection was forged most successfully in the ‘80s. Call it the K-Tel conceit, or the packaging of potential hits, but these pop song laden albums are meant as slyly subtle tie-ins to the motion picture proper. Sometimes, the tunes featured are merely “suggested” by the title they are connected to (meaning they don’t actually appear in the movie itself). The last soundtrack standard is the one based on the actual movie musical. Prior to its death as a cultural commodity around 1975, original cast recordings from the song and dance epics were chart topping smashes. They ruled Billboard before The Beatles came along and realigned the entire notion of popularity.


In this first edition of SE&L’s revamp of the PopMatters’ Surround Sound brand (it will be a blog feature from now on), we get an interesting overview of all three concepts. First up is a mostly wordless workout on a terribly tired A-list entity. While it hopes to hint at hep-ness, it’s more vague than Vegas. Second, there’s a CG cartoon companion piece that often feels like the bumper tunes played at the Caribbean version of the Super Bowl. One amazing moment of artistic clarity stands out, though. And finally, one of the most anticipated movies of Summer 2007 delivers its pre-release set of shifted over showtunes. Oddly enough, it appears that something incredibly campy and busy found its way from the boards of Broadway to the encoded information of the aluminum disc. While perhaps not the best examples of movie music’s power and potential, the trio of albums here do a bang up job of illustrating the kind of releases the studios depend upon to heighten overall awareness.


Ocean’s 13 [rating: 5]


There is something very cold and calculated about the oh so hip ‘coolness’ composer/DJ David Holmes is putting forth on this, his third dip into Danny’s Ocean. The latest aural investigation of the Stephen Soderbergh Rat Pack redux finds Holmes still generating that old fashioned space age bachelor pad Muzak via some decidedly high tech toys, lost in a natty nostalgia that seems geared to those who get their sonic memories supersized via Starbucks.  The results sound oddly familiar and yet almost antiseptic, reminiscent of what robotic lounge lizards would generate if they were in charge of the party. There’s no denying the initial allure – jazzy horns and tumbling vibes always bring out one’s inner jet setting bon vivant – but Holmes is merely the student hoping to imitate a far more formidable set of masters. And then, just to make things a little more complicated, the studio tosses in tracks from Frank Sinatra (“This Town”) and Puccio Roelens (a rather dry version of the standard “Caravan”) just to show how far off base he really is.

Still, there are elements here that really do set the proper playful tone for the film – which is all a score is supposed to do, at the end of the day. Indeed, the very first track, “Not Their Fight” will probably be absconded one day by Quentin Tarantino, so strong is it’s trippy throwback mentality. Driven by a particularly slinky bass, the kicky “Kensington Chump” is all burbles and undulating aural quirks. “Laptops”, only a minute long, sounds like the greatest unused opening riff in all of late ‘60s rock, while “Dice Men” could have been the backdrop to any number of Peace Generation acid casualty love ins – that is, until it breaks into a series of ‘70s cop show shout-outs, and more or less arrests itself. But the real standout inclusion is by another non-Holmes’ contributor. Motherhood, which can best be described as the real deal, delivers the dynamic “Soul Town”, a collection of concrete hooks and haunting female trills that literally sends the short hairs on the back of your neck craning upward for a listen. It has an electricity that Holmes himself and the rest of the Ocean 13 CD can barely muster.


Surf’s Up! [rating: 4]


As with most varying artist outtakes, b-sides, and popular hits compilations, the mood of the movie moment is clearly and loudly signaled by each and every song. Indeed, all throughout Up’s amiable track list, we can experience the film’s two overriding levels of honest emotion – call them “Let’s Party!” and “Let’s Chill”. On the side of sun and fun are random auditory clichés like the Romantics thoroughly overplayed Kinks vamp “What I Like About You” as well as retakes on time tested tunes like “Wipe Out” (by Big Nose) and “Reggae Got Soul” (by 311). But when the narrative needs to turn all pensive or prophetic, it pulls out the slow, languid acoustics of Nine Black Alp’s “Pocket Full of Stars” or Incubus’ “Drive”. In fact, you can almost set your internal emotional clock by the way this CD unfolds. Happiness leads to heartbreak as histrionics meld into heroism. By the end – a rather routine “Hawaiian War Chant (Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai) by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – you can just visualize the 3D cartoon characters walking into the computer generated sunset, story told and overall entertainment value confirmed.

There are some surprises here. Pearl Jam, a band one wouldn’t normally associate with a family film soundtrack, pops up to provide its standard angst-propelled passion for the appropriately titled “Big Wave”, while those lost superstars the New Radicals are revisited with their signature anthem “You Get What You Give”. A big surprise here is the inclusion of a track by Ms. Lauryn Hill. Absent from the charts since 2002’s MTV Unplugged No. 2, her inclusion – a gorgeous ghetto groove called “Lose Myself” – maintains her continuing status as an artist of infinite possibilities. The scratchy funk backdrop, met almost instantly by some spacey, ethereal ‘80s new wave keyboards, leads to a melodic and lyrical intensity that causes one’s jaw to drop…into an easy smile. In some ways, this is the former Fugees’ rewrite of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” – there’s the same pure pop conceit, but an undercurrent that downplays the inherent effervescence. Unfortunately, it’s a level of musical mastery that makes even the classic tracks on this hit-oriented collection blush in aesthetic embarrassment.


Hairspray the Musical [rating: 5]


To the unfamiliar ear, the score for the hit Broadway extravaganza based on John Waters’ far wittier coming of age comedy was like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors fused to a determined devotee’s idea of what a Great White Way show should sound like. It’s big! It’s brassy! It’s beaming with all kinds of gonzo gay pride! And yet for some reason, the fevered pitch via which composer Marc Shaiman vamps his vision of Baltimore circa 1962 is both sincere and kind of shallow. There’s a crowdpleaser desperation buried at the base of each number, a ‘sell it to the balcony’ sense of showmanship that can be both glorious and grating. Similar to how Mel Brooks managed a Tony out of what is basically a bunch of forgettable, half-formed songs, Hairspray tries to walk the walk, but ends up drowning in its own disposability. Fifty years from now, when directors are hungry for solid shows to revive, this is one that won’t be tallying up those longevity royalties.


Indeed, without someone like South Park’s Trey Parker alongside to balance out the kitsch factor (the two collaborated on the Oscar nominated songs for the cartoon’s big screen debut), Shaiman is shameless. He borrows so much from the aural clichés of the era that you find yourself playing an internal guessing game over who he’s stealing from/homaging next. “Good Morning Baltimore”, the show’s (and movie’s) opening number is like a gigantic girl group tribute taken to tacky extremes. Sadly, Rachel Sweet did it much better when she crafted the title track to Waters’ film. Even the new songs, specifically fashioned for this release (and added Academy attention come awards time), are almost too familiar to be considered original. Indeed, the first ‘single’ from the soundtrack, Zac Efrom’s “Ladies Choice” is just “Hand Jive” with tween appropriate sentiments. While it’s a kick to hear star John Travolta croon alongside screen ‘hubby’ Christopher Walken on the number “(You’re) Timeless to Me”, this is one CD that needs the musical from whence it came, and all the goodwill associated with same, to overcome its ditzy desperation.



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Tuesday, Jul 3, 2007


With the bottle rocket’s red glare, and the cherry bombs bursting in air (at least, in those places where said celebration ammunition remains quasi-legal), the first half of the Summer Movie Season circa 2007 is officially over. Nine weeks, dozens of films, and lots of critical complaining, has made this annual parade of popcorn movies a little less exciting (theme for the season so far– the Year of the Underwhelming Disappointments). No one movie has broken out from the pack, becoming the “must see” event the warmer months typically demand, and while a few films have struck a chord of universal acclaim, audiences aren’t responding with the usual fiscal fall out. Instead, it looks like a kind of entertainment ennui has set in, viewers responding to the lack of legitimized excitement by satisfying themselves with a single viewing –- or even worse -– not showing up to the Cineplex at all.


It’s unclear whether the next nine weeks will change any of this. Michael Bay’s megawatt Transformers will give it a fiery Fourth try, but the deeply divided sentiments among reviewers won’t help the bottom line. Harry Potter is back for a fifth cinematic fling, but age –- and the soon to be released, spoiler filled final installment in the literary series –- may derail its popularity and profitability. The Simpsons could jumpstart (albeit belatedly) a nice turnstile tidal wave, but those who are banking on Hairspray to save the cinematic day could be overplaying the musical genre’s heft. After that, it’s one of the less impressive Augusts on record. To put things in perspective, SE&L has gone back over the 13 films it experienced since a certain webslinger arrived in theaters, and has ranked them from best to worst. Review links have also been provided in case you’d like to read more. Enjoy!


Ratatouille


Easily the winner when it comes to major releases. Brad Bird’s unbelievably dense narrative, combined with Pixar’s pristine animation, makes for one amazing visual journey. As we follow a wannabe rodent on his quest for culinary recognition, the artists and designers responsible for the film’s fascinating look constantly surprise us. But it’s the emotional elements in the narrative that truly astound.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


SiCKO


The know-it-alls like to beat up on Michael Moore for not getting every single solitary nuance of the facts 100% aligned with their particular view of things. This doesn’t mean that his latest documentary is a failure. In fact, it may just be the most potent piece of filmmaking the director has ever done.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Knocked Up


Finally! A comedy that’s actually funny! Judd Apatow deserves some sort of special place in the current industry hierarchy for delivering audiences from the scourge of humorless half-baked fare. In its place, the 40 Year Old Virgin auteur fashions a callous chick flick where geeks, gals and the occasional gross out gag can live in harmonious hilarity.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End


Somewhere between the decision to turn the Disney attraction into a feature film, and the concept of increasing the franchise to fill up a supposed trilogy, critics bailed on this set of stellar action/adventure romps. Destined to be viewed with new appreciation decades from now, this last installment truly represents the pinnacle of old fashioned blockbuster moviemaking.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Fido


Believe it or not, zombies actually make a wonderful metaphor for the corrosion of conformity that was the 1950s, but not because they represent the mindless mob mentality. No, they are the perfect mirror for Canadian filmmaker Andrew Currie’s clever take on intolerance and fear. The undead are only acting on instinct. It’s the corporate controlled suburbanites that pose the real threat.

+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Live Free or Die Hard


We know, we know; we picked this fading franchise to deliver one of Summer 2007’s biggest bombs. We may have been misguided. While not up to the level of the previous installments in this once influential action series, star Bruce Willis and director Len Wiseman still deliver spectacular stunt set pieces and enough bad ass machismo to satisfy filmgoers.

+ PopMatters Review


Hostel Part II


Don’t believe the agenda-based hype. Eli Roth’s return to the former Eastern Bloc is not the original film reconfigured with babes, or the most violent atrocity against the female species ever put on film. Instead, it’s a completely unique sequel, a revisit that totally rewrites everything about the initial ‘gorno’ classic… and finds equally effective fear factors.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


1408


It’s the antidote for the blood and guts gratuity of post-millennial horror, as well as a stunning tour de force by actor John Cusack. More an old fashioned thriller than a modern movie macabre, this delightful journey into dread proves that Stephen King is not cinematic poison. Instead, in the hands of the right creative team, he remains a formidable fright force.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Spider-man 3


The list of complaints is long, and the sense of disappointment palpable, but it seems silly to think that Sam Raimi and the rest of the Spidey set could repeat the bravura brilliance of Spider-man 2. While the villains are more than viable, and the new black suit mojo cleverly illustrated, the movie still feels scattered and strained.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


28 Weeks Later


Danny Boyle’s original was more about deconstructing society than rewriting the rules of zombie lore (all right, they’re NOT the living dead). But in Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s take on the material, it’s the US military that takes it on the chin – over and over again. The result is a fractured sense of fear, with the humans packing more precariousness than the Rage-infected horde.

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


Evan Almighty


Why this genial family comedy is not a bigger hit says more about the movie going habits of the general public than what the film itself has to offer. Sure, it’s cloying and incredibly mannered, the filmmakers avoid anything remotely serious or sacrilegious, but there is still enough here to easily entertain those so inclined. A truly perplexing commercial conundrum.

+ PopMatters Review


Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer


Aimed at the kiddies yet barely capable of sustaining such creative overreaching, director Tim Story once again argues for his place as the worst interpreter of comic book material out there. This time around, the title heroes are hampered by a cosmic planet killer, his slick metallic messenger…and tabloid fame. Oddly enough, the press comes across as the most threatening.

+ PopMatters Review


Shrek the Third


Like an old sitcom that just won’t die, this ongoing CG stupidity argues for its lack of viable funny business as well as the eventual death of 3D animation. Horribly dull and equally uninspired, what once seemed novel and ironic now feels like an extended advertisement for yet another installment (and it worked –- number four is in the works. Groan).

+ PopMatters Review
+ PopMatters SE&L Review


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